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Movies 2

This post will cover horror, thrillers, and action, with special attention to Hitchcock and Film Noir movies, followed by war films and movies in a series.

Horror:

Since this is far from my favorite genre, you won’t find many listings. My first encounter with a scary movie occurred sometime in the late 1960s when I was probably 7 or 8 years old, and it involved a rather famous movie from 1931–Frankenstein. This movie scared me so badly that even after a long, hot summer day and lots of outdoor activity I had trouble sleeping. Back then, we only had an air conditioning unit in the basement of our split-level house. So on hot nights my entire family–two parents and five kids–would sleep in the basement on couches, foam pads, and sleeping bags. This brings back fond memories, apart from the night my two older brothers insisted we watch this great movie they had heard about. My younger sisters fell asleep, but I could not. I quivered under my sheet for hours afterward. I suppose it’s ironic that my favorite comedy is Young Frankenstein (reviewed in my first Movies post). Now I have resolved to watch the original and maybe even Bride of Frankenstein from 1935. And I’ll be very disappointed if they don’t frighten me! So, I may still have a review to post at a later time. I have read the book, written by a 19 year old Mary Shelley. Of course, the cinematic version changed many things, but I expect she would approve of an actor who called himself William Henry Pratt–we know him as Boris Karloff (you know, the narrator of Dr Suess’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas). The original Dracula was also made in 1931, an early talkie, another classic to watch.

All right, then. I just watched Frankenstein on Turner Classic Movies (10/4/11). No, it’s nothing like the book except for the basic premise of the creation of a human who becomes a monster. Yes, it did originate the look of the monster, which is not as it is described in the novel. I noticed that the credited novelist was “Mrs. Percy B. Shelley” How feudal. Was I frightened? Nein. I guess I just know the story too well. I did think the film was well done, and worth watching (it’s a quick 1 hour and 11 minutes).

Psycho (1960). Oh, yes, this is Alfred Hitchcock at his scariest best. Just remember, a sandwich and milk can be such a mistake. And we all ought to be checking our hotel and motel rooms for peek-holes. Oh, and stay away from any hotel manager with a creepy mommy complex. See, you can learn so many important things from movies. And do know this–you may be able to find movies that scare you more, see below, but a scary movie from Hitchcock has the ability to turn a genre upside down, shake it up, and make the story and its images crawl under your skin. The best actors flocked to him and he enhanced their careers; even today, with all the computer effects, his style, his work continues to delight audiences and influence movie-makers.

Even before the movie starts, the Bernard Herrmann score, using an orchestra consisting exclusively of violins, sets a tense, eerie tone, hurling the audience forward to the horror that awaits. The music also augments the starkness of the creepy lighting and the black and white cinematography. “Hitch,” as his friends called him, thought the movie would be too gory in color, creating problems with the censors. The movie even tones down the violence: the book by Robert Bloch from which the Joseph Stefano script is derived, features a beheading. It’s disturbing that the novel was inspired by a string of murders in Wisconsin. Though Norman Bates is a balding, pudgy man in the book, Stefano decided to make him a young, handsome man to add glamour to the role and also make Bates a more sympathetic character.

This movie is so much more than a story about a woman who gets lost then is murdered in a shower by a psychopath with a mommy complex. It is the most influential horror film of all time. It’s the godfather of gore-less terror. Hitchcock sets up the first two scenes then builds the tension then bam! He kills off his main character before the film is half over, violating a rule of story-telling in any genre. He then shifts the focus to the lonesome, disturbed Norman Bates. Then the mystery and the tension builds to the climax. Hitchcock and his carefully chosen writers taught the world about twists and danger and the perfect timing necessary for a cinematic ride of thrills. Modern audiences are inured to gore and frights, but Hitchcock could scare you despite tight censorship. Yes, the shower scene is famous–no, the woman is not stabbed, no, the woman is not naked–that’s all in the imagination of the audience. Nowadays, they show everything, but without the class, the style, of the master. I can’t explain the Hitchcock technique–he just knew what would work. He was right, film after film after film.

Janet Leigh, as Marion Crane, the unfortunate woman who shows up at the obscure Bates Motel, received an Oscar nomination for her role. Anthony Perkins, at age 27, was already a veteran of the stage and screen before he took on the role of the infamous Norman Bates, an unhinged, neurotic mama’s boy. Vera Miles, another Hollywood star, was cast as Marion Crane’s sister. John Gavin is the boyfriend (you may recognize him as a young Julius Caesar in Spartacus), and Martin Balsam plays the hapless detective on the trail of stolen money.

Now for some fun facts. The shower scene took seven days to film. They used a nude model to stand in the shower behind the translucent shower curtain so they could adjust the lighting and camera angles. The sound of the knife stabbing Janet Leigh is really a melon getting hacked. Oh, and that’s chocolate syrup flowing in the tub–as the movie is in black and white, they just needed something with the right consistency. Janet Leigh stated that the finished movie scared her so much, she stopped taking showers. I guess she felt less vulnerable in the bathtub. Hitchcock makes his appearance in the film (he always works in a cameo of himself in his movies) outside Marion’s office, early in the film. The other secretary in Marion’s office was Pat Hitchcock, Hitch’s daughter. Hitchcock was a jokester. On numerous occasions he planted a scary version of Mother for Janet Leigh to find. The one she screamed the loudest at was the one they used in the movie. Finally, Psycho is also the first movie in history in which you see a toilet. Now that you know these tidbits of trivia, doesn’t your life feel more complete?

This is the film, the template of shock, every horror flick tries to outdo. See it and enjoy cinematic history.

Silence of the Lambs (1991). This movie scared the heebie-jeebies out of me. A blast of tension and menace from start to finish, it’s hard to shake–for days after the first time I watched it (at home on DVD, with all the curtains open) or even when I watched it this week. The film creates images that stick with you, whether you want them to or not. This film mixes Gothic horror, police procedure, and psychological thrills, giving us a modern classic. It also steps away from formula and makes the story’s hero a woman, one with a moral center and character depth. This is the first horror movie to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Additionally, it’s only the third movie in history to win the “big five” Oscars–Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Actor. (The others include It Happened One Night from 1934, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest from 1975.) Surprisingly, the movie premiered in February, a full year before the Academy Awards ceremony, making it the only movie in history to exert its presence that early and win best picture.

Jodie Foster plays Clarice Starling, an FBI trainee sent to see imprisoned Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lector, a famous serial killer, to gain insight into the madness and the method of a rampant murderer called Buffalo Bill (played by Ted Levine, who takes creepy to a whole new level). The script by Ted Tally from the Thomas Harris book plays on the American obsession with serial killers. The character of Hannibal Lector reflects a composite of serial killers. Tally’s script gives uncommon depth to characters in a horror story, featuring the famous line by Anthony Hopkin’s Hannibal Lector: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” Hopkins said of his character: “I played the part with as much relish as I could.” And Hopkins played it to perfection. The American Film Institute ranked Hannibal Lector as American film’s greatest villain (even beating out Darth Vader). HL is so evil, so insane that only a great actor could prevent this beast from becoming cartoonish and campy.

If HL gives the movie its insane villain, Clarice Starling is its moral anchor. She resonates with the audience, especially women, who root for her and are frightened for her, with good reason. For the most part, the story unfolds through Starling’s view, which draws us to her as she works her way through the mystery and danger she faces as she searches for a sinister murderer. You find yourself holding your breath during the darkness scene at the end of her pursuit. Though less showy, Jodie Foster gives a remarkable performance. (Have you ever seen a bad performance from this two-time Oscar winner? No, you have not. Like Hopkins, she is one of our best living actors.) And even though this movie provides many scary scenes and images, it is the conversations between Lector and Starling that comprise the heart of the movie. Jonathan Demme, the director, has created a horror masterpiece. (I thought it interesting that the original director was Gene Hackman, who rejected the role because he thought the story was too violent.) Demme, not known as a director of thrillers, was a fan of Hitchcock. A classic Hitchcock trick to heighten tension was to, in effect, show the bomb under the seat to the audience, but not tell the characters. Demme accomplishes this by seeing the story through Starling’s eyes, but cutting away from time to time to show disturbing events as they happen and to set up the danger that awaits her.

This is scary, excellent stuff. Now that I’m done writing this, I can push these frightening images and characters out of my head.

Okay, that’s it for horror flicks. I told you this category would be short. Then again, maybe the most powerful horror is found in Schindler’s List or Hotel Rwanda. No fiction is as horrible as the truth of genocide.

I’ll move on to thrillers, which may include some movies you may consider horror. I suppose it’s a fine line between the two categories; many don’t make any distinction between them. The articles will include action flicks. Let’s face it, if action isn’t thrilling it isn’t worth watching. And you’ll notice I don’t include a tremendous number of action movies—if a movie is only about the action, the explosions, then it probably didn’t interest me.

Thrillers/Action:

The Sixth Sense (1999). If you think this is just a movie about a kid who sees dead people, then you obviously haven’t seen this film, which was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture. The story succeeds on two levels: first, it is chock full of thrills and a couple of famous twists that made this movie tremendously successful at the box office; second, this is an excellent psychological drama featuring two small, wounded families: the relationships of husband and wife, mother and son. The characters break your heart during the times when the tension lessens. Nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, M. Night Shyamalan achieves the thrills and the drama with excellent pacing–mystery builds during conversation and quiet times, which increases the impact of the major events. And to fully appreciate this tale, recall the lessons on symbolism your literature teachers tried to instill in you–look for the color red, note the clothes of the psychologist, and observe the cold temperature events.

In my first Movie article I belabored the importance of good writing. In the thriller genre, as with any other, you need brilliant storytelling–that means a great script and great directing. But you will note the desperate need for quality acting in horror/thrillers. In that thriller flick you saw last week, how many award-worthy performances did you see? None, probably. In Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and The Sixth Sense, you have in common multiple Oscar nominations for acting. The reason TSS succeeds so well in multiple viewings is that even after you’ve seen every thrill and twist you still find yourself watching a quality psychological drama with excellent performances. (Even M. Night shows up as a doctor in a scene.) Bruce Willis, normally an action hero, delivers a fine, understated portrayal of a child psychologist. Toni Collette, the mother, received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, another great turn in a career of memorable roles, such as in About a Boy, Little Miss Sunshine, the Hours, and Emma. And then we have Haley Joel Osment, who makes your heart ache time after time, and especially when he says, “I don’t want to be scared anymore.” You feel so sorry for this little boy, whose tortured life is the cornerstone of this fine film. (You first saw him as Forrest Gump’s son.) His performance is so real, it doesn’t even seem like he’s acting or that someone that young could be acting, hence the Oscar nod for a kid of 11 years old. See this emotionally complex thriller, for the first time or the fourth.

Hitchcock favorites: First, a few notes on the master. Born in London in 1899 to a grocer, he was raised as a Roman Catholic. He died in 1980 in Bel Air, California, of renal failure. Though widely considered the most influential director of all time, he never won a Best Director Oscar. He was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1967, and then gave the shortest speech in Oscar history: “Thank you.” He directed 67 movies spanning 50 years. His first job in movies was as a title designer for a London studio. He directed his first film in 1925. He was disliked by Walt Disney, who barred him from Disneyland because he had made “that disgusting movie Psycho.” Married to Alma Reville, a trusted collaborator on his films, he had one child, Patricia, who appeared in Stage Fright, Strangers on a Train, and Psycho. “Hitch” had a fear of the police, little children, and eggs. He was knighted in 1979 by the British government.

David O. Selznick, the Hollywood producer, was known as a micromanager and a taskmaster. But his two most important accomplishments include producing Gone with the Wind, and bringing Alfred Hitchcock to America. When a project to make a movie about some boat called the Titanic fell through, Hitch took on the Daphne Du Maurier Gothic novel, Rebecca (1940). Considerable strife between the two forces ensued: Selznick wanted the movie done his way, Hitchcock wanted it done his way. Hitch won out partly because Selznick was busy finishing GWTW, and because the crew, loyal to Hitch, stopped filming whenever Selznick came on the set. In the end, a classic movie was made and an enduring friendship was created between two of Hollywood’s great forces.

So, what about the movie, you ask? Hitchcock. Sir Laurence Olivier. Joan Fontaine. Gothic thriller. Need you know more? Well, all right. An ingenue falls in love with a rich widower. After they marry, they return to his grand, creepy home in Cornwall, England, where the dead first wife still has her claws in the husband and his staff, particularly the housekeeper (a wonderful performance by Judith Anderson). The young wife, who is never even given a name other than Mrs. de Winter, struggles to cope with the memory of the first wife. And just when you think you know what the story is about, Hitch (Du Marnier) turns it all upside down. Twists were Hitchcock’s specialty, and he delivers more than one turn of the screw. It also features the the urbane, scummy George Sanders in a role he seemed to relish. Great performances, compelling story, this is the classic film made by a novice film maker who knew just what to do from the start. It’s also a fantastic opportunity to see the great stage actor, Sir Laurence Olivier, in one of his great movie roles.

Rear Window (1954). ***News flash–I had dental work today. It helped to relieve my Novacained face by watching Rear Window, but I’m still not in the mood to write or even italicize. Catch you tomorrow. Okay, I’ve recovered.*** So, I’ll tell you that Rear Window represents all that is Hitchcock–suspense, humor, psychology, sexuality, and his fascination with crime. But here he adds another component–voyeurism, which gives us the essence of the story. We watch James Stewart’s character watch other people. Not only do we see what he sees, we then gauge his reaction to the events of this microcosm. The character, “Jeff” is an adventuresome photographer stuck in his apartment with a broken leg. Across the courtyard resides other apartment dwellers, whose stories add interest to the movie and blend in with the focus story and its characters. The three-storied apartment building serves as a theater for the bored voyeur, who becomes obsessed with his theory and the bits of circumstantial evidence he notices.

In Jeff’s apartment other people complete the picture and complicate the story of a man who thinks he may have discovered a murder. Jeff’s girlfriend, Lisa, played by Grace Kelly, a socialite, also becomes convinced that a murder across the courtyard has been committed. The nurse, played by the excellent Thelma Ritter, gives the story its comedy. Raymond Burr provides the fright. A skeptical detective friend completes the ensemble. As Jeff’s investigation proceeds, so do the stories of the apartment dwellers and the problem within the relationship of Jeff and Lisa. Grace Kelly, utterly chic and gorgeous, with the help of the great costumer, Edith Head, is forced into the role of seducer of the distracted Jeff, who claims Lisa is “too perfect.” Yes, it’s a stretch of the imagination to believe Grace Kelly needs to seduce anyone (in one of her last roles before retiring to marry a prince). At first she tries food and beauty to win Jeff, but doesn’t succeed until she turns daredevil to advance Jeff’s investigation.

The story presents four interesting themes. In a twist, it is the woman who takes the physical risks and the temporarily impotent man who must watch, helpless to the escalating danger–hence, the portrayal of the empowered woman. Second, as with Psycho, Hitchcock depicts a villain as sympathetic. Though Norman Bates is a young, handsome man trapped in his own mental illness, Lars Thorwald is a man trapped by his nagging, invalid wife (and a mistress on the side). No, we’re never going to like these men, but their predicament gives their characters interest and depth. Third, Hitch stresses the incompatibility of the sexes. Jeff and Lisa lack common lifestyles. Even when they seem to draw closer in the end, Hitch makes it clear that Lisa will never lose her sense of self in Jeff’s world. And finally, Jeff’s current world, or the microcosm of it, are the apartments across the courtyard with several stories, several occupants living day to day without connecting with one another. This sense of isolation climaxes when the woman finds her dog dead then first accuses the other inhabitants of killing the dog, and then scolds them of not caring about one another. The violent resolution at the end brings the neighborhood together. Thus, a murder supplies the impetus for positive social interaction. How perverse is that?

If you’ve never seen a Hitchcock movie, this is the one to watch. A compelling story with a gripping, memorable ending, Rear Window epitomizes his work and shows him at the height of his abilities. This is a fun, thrilling ride–get on board.

North by Northwest (1959). With one of Hitchcock’s favorite actors, Cary Grant, we have the story of a high-flying businessman who is mistaken for a spy then suspected in the murder of a diplomat at the U.N. Complications increase when Grant’s character meets a spy, Eva Marie Saint. But what you know about this movie, if you haven’t seen it in its entirety, are the famous set pieces–the attack on Grant by a biplane, and the chase across the face of Mount Rushmore. What you need to notice is the crisp, sometimes sensual, sometimes humorous, often tense dialogue of Oscar nominee Ernest Lehman (you know him as the screenwriter of the Sound of Music). Hitchcock again uses a Bernard Herrmann score to heighten the tension; and this time he uses Grant to infuse the movie with humor, style, and suspense in this mistaken identity thriller.

Perhaps Hitchcock’s favorite recurring theme is the cool blonde. Playing on the cliche of the period that blondes have more fun, Hitchcock made sure his blondes suffered (but with many close ups). Fascinated by glamour, Hitch loved to cast women who portrayed remoteness and a sense of allure, with the heat simmering just underneath their cool exterior. He also loved talent: both Grace Kelly and Eva Marie Saint were Oscar winners; Janet Leigh was nominated for an Oscar in Psycho; and Ingrid Bergman of Notorious was a three-time winner. In North by Northwest, Eva Marie Saint, a professional spy, courts Grant yet is the villain’s girlfriend. Her Eve Kendall gives us Hitchcock’s most vulnerable cool blonde. The heated banter with Grant on the train oozes sexual tension; the suggestive yet innocent dialogue and imagery lead to a twist–just a shift in her eyes tells the audience that Grant is the one in danger.

Rather than provide us with a sympathetic villain, James Mason portrays the sophisticated yet menacing man of evil Grant must escape. Another recurring theme is the powerful mother figure. Here Grant’s mother supplies levity, a far cry from Psycho’s ultimate Mother. While all Hitchcock films used action to some degree, he always presented action as the key to revealing character. With Grant, we meet a shallow man confronted by confusion and danger, which is complicated by his feelings for Eve Kendall. He emerges as a man willing to accept responsibility and take action.

Though fresh in 1959, this film has been imitated time after time (the ultimate tribute). Along with Rear Window, North by Northwest give us Hitchcock’s most likable films.

Another of my favorites, the classy Notorious (1946), gives us Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman (a cool blonde Hitchcock used in Spellbound), and Nazis. Debonair spymaster Grant recruits party-girl Bergman to infiltrate a nest of Nazis in Argentina. Anxious to atone for her estranged father’s traitorous activities, Bergman agrees, then goes to extremes by marrying fascist Claude Rains. The romantic yearnings of Grant and Bergman complicate Bergman’s dangerous predicament. Her new mother-in-law is a flesh and bones embodiment of a monster akin to a living Mrs. Bates. Complex characters, comely movie stars, great acting, taut script, and unnerving menace–it’s all here to thrill and entertain you.

One of Hitchcock’s favorite plot devices, the “MacGuffin,” provided misdirection to keep the audience guessing and to heighten suspense. In Notorious, it involved the uranium in the wine bottles. In Psycho, it was the stolen $40,000; in Rear Window, the dog digging in the garden, and his subsequent death, each served to add menace and direct audiences down the wrong path. Another plot device involves the power of fear. Hitchcock, together with his writers, found the dark places in the human mind. Vertigo (1958) uses fear of heights to derail his protagonist James Stewart. Though one of Hitchcock’s classic films, it was not well-received by the public when it was first released. Perhaps audiences didn’t enjoy seeing Jimmy Stewart play an obsessed, deranged “hero” in an emotionally disturbing, creepy love affair. Here again, the cool blonde (Kim Novak) is present along with a haunting Bernard Herrmann score in an often imitated, gorgeously filmed masterpiece of suspense.

Another example of the sympathetic villain can be found in Dial M for Murder (1954). Adulteress Grace Kelly faces mortal revenge by her wronged husband. Fortunately, she keeps her scissors sharp. Hitchcock also liked to turn innocent objects into evil weapons. In Strangers on a Train (1951), a merry-go-round becomes a killing machine. After seeing The Birds (1963), can you ever think of feathered creatures in quite the same way? Frightening stuff indeed. Though Hitch was known for delivering thrills and glamour, he also experimented. In The Rope (1948), he filmed an entire story in a theatrical, one-room setting using long takes to build suspense.

Alfred Hitchcock was the master of suspense–film makers to this day still copy, steal, and imitate his work. Onward to more films.

Jaws (1975). Director Steven Spielberg’s first hit movie, Jaws, from the novel by Peter Benchley, tells the story of a killer shark who terrorizes a sea-side resort. Apart from an exciting story and a load of thrills, this movie created cinematic history–it originated the summer blockbuster, a trend that continues to this day. Great directing, editing, storytelling, sound production, and acting keep you ensnared in this modern Moby Dick. This frightening shark, which Spielberg slowly reveals to the audience, was actually a massive rubber creation named Bruce (Finding Nemo pays it tribute). The film features John William’s unmistakable ominous, throbbing score. Great performances abound by actors Richard Dreyfus, Robert Shaw, and Roy Schneider, who gives us one of Hollywood’s great ad lib lines: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” I strongly recommend that you not watch this movie right before beginning your scuba-diving class–you’ll never make to the first session. This is a film well worth a second and third viewing.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is the action film every other flick of the genre wants to equal, but none have succeeded. I’ve never met a person who didn’t like this movie. The question is usually–how many times have you seen it? I have fond memories of watching Raiders with my dad and two sisters in the theater. Only my youngest sister remains, so it’s a poignant remembrance for me.

Anyway, as with all the great movies, Raiders fires on all cylinders. Director Steven Spielberg teams with screenwriters George Lucas (Star Wars) and Lawrence Kasdan, and producer Frank Marshall to create excitement and adventure (with the help of truck loads of stunt performers) in this good-natured thriller. Harrison Ford stars as archaeologist Indiana Jones in the great role of his career. “Indy” partners with ex-girlfriend Marion (a feisty Karen Allen), a competent heroine, to save the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis. Thrilling and funny, Raiders gives us escapism at its best.

So, what happened with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Certainly, it suffered from trying to live up to the standard set by Raiders. Apart from Toy Story 3, it’s difficult to imagine a sequel bettering its predecessor. I know I harp on about writing, but the script in this movie is inadequate. Oh sure, the movie made a ton of money and Steven Spielberg found his mate in leading lady Kate Capshaw, but that icky meal scene just doesn’t work. Amazingly, Spielberg even falters in the pacing of the action at the end of the film. But in 1989, the magic returns in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Nazis again provide the menace when they kidnap Indy’s father, a cranky professor played with relish by Sean Connery. Indy’s search for his father embroils him in the quest for the Holy Grail. Though the story provides plenty of laughs, it won’t remind you of the Monty Python masterpiece of silliness. Instead, you’ll enjoy watching Indy and his less-adventuresome father stumble into a series of adventures highlighted by great scenery and a vixen Nazi. Denholm Elliot and John Rhys-Davies (Gimli from Lord of the Rings at his true height) return from Raiders. The Spielberg-Lucas-Ford trio return to present Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). If you enjoyed the other Indiana Jones movies, you’ll like this one, too. Is it as good as the original? Of course not. But it provides thrills and fun, which is the goal of all the Indiana Jones movies. In a stroke of genius, they bring back Karen Allen, who is as spirited as ever. Involving Cate Blanchett in your film is always a good move, as is adding John Hurt and Jim Broadbent (two Harry Potter alums) to your cast.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Both director Ang Lee and star Michelle Yeoh describe the film set in China as the Sense and Sensibility of martial arts. Though the movie contains ample fight scenes, it isn’t just a blast of testosterone; rather, emotions and relationships depict the power of love and sacrifice worthy of Jane Austen. Ang Lee, also the director of Sense and Sensibility (1995), contrasts the repressive society of 19th century China with stunning over-the-top fight scenes. In the fight sequences, you’ll watch characters running over roof tops and up walls, along tree branches, spinning and flying with amazing fluidity. Battles become dances with fight manuevers that move faster than the eye can follow. Yet Lee accomplishes this within the context of tremendous heartache and the powerful themes of fear, loyalty, honor, and tradition. This blend of action, fantasy, and romance made CTHD Asia’s biggest worldwide hit in history.

Rarely does a martial arts film stress plot and character development. CTHD does this even as it provides some of the most amazing fight sequences in the genre, under the supervision of renowned fight choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping, who also staged the fight sequences in the Matrix. Top to bottom, this film is loaded with talent. Famous martial arts actress Michelle Yeoh dazzles with her fighting skills (but it’s dangerous work–she tore her ACL during one of the battles), yet leaves me wondering how she failed to achieve an Oscar nomination for her acting. You may remember her from a James Bond film from 1997. Chow Yun-Fat is a skilled actor, and newcomer Ziyi Zhang, as she is now known, is a wonderful discovery as a rebellious aristocrat who runs away from her family and an arranged marriage. She seeks freedom and the right to become a warrior like her famous idols, played by MY and CYF. But the warriors suffer from unfulfilled love, which is derailed once again when CYF is forced to avenge the death of his master at the hands of Jade Fox, the mentor of ZZ.

CTHD garnered the rare Best Picture nomination for a foreign language film (in Mandarin, though the major stars also delivered an English version). It won Oscars for Best Foreign Language film, Art Direction, Cinematography, and Score, which features the cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma. I’ve watched the movie in both Mandarin and English–I strongly recommend watching the movie in its intended Mandarin and reading the subtitles in English (or French). By the way, Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang reunite in the visually and emotionally stunning Cinderella story, Memoirs of a Geisha (2005). Michelle Yeoh will play Aung San Suu Kyi in an upcoming film.

This wondrous movie delights and thrills the senses, yet bursts with emotional intensity and gravitas. Just remember, some of the fighting scenes are meant as fantasy; the fight scene in the restaurant with ZZ and hoard of assailants aims for levity, yet also reflects the feminist undercurrent set against the repressive Chinese society. Rent it, buy it–for most Westerners, you will discover a film unlike anything you have ever seen.

Now if you’re looking for a mindbender, Inception (2010) is for you. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, this action-suspense flick actually requires the use of your brain. The audience is constantly trying to keep track of this waking-dreaming, globetrotting tale that delights rather than frustrates. True, the ending is ambiguous, but hopeful. This is a dream cast (pun intended), which includes Leonardo Dicaprio, Ken Watanabe, Marion Cotillard, and Ellen Page. If you’re one of those people who can’t watch a movie without playing with your smartphone, then just skip it and play with your toy. As you now know, I’m against entertainment multi-tasking–you can’t fully appreciate a book if the TV is blaring in the background; and you can’t completely enjoy a movie if you constantly need to check your texts. Make a choice. Lecture over.

 

Film Noir. This category includes American films initially produced during the 1940s and 1950s, featuring a world-weary, sordid, gritty style, chock-full of killers, perilous romance, corpses, femme fatales, whiskey, cigarettes, crooked cops, drunken losers, flawed heroes, paranoia, treachery, loners, misplaced loyalty, criminality, moody black and white lighting, hidden secrets, lust, love, sex, moral ambivalence, greed, and the frailty of human lives. These movies emphasize the individual in a hostile universe, treading on the psychology of existentialism and the influence of German Espressionism. Though the war-weary public may have embraced the films, most of the initial stories originated in the 1930s by authors such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Cornel Woolrich. The setting of these films typically involved urban life, though they often took place in small towns, suburbia, rural areas, or even on a dark, lonely road.

The Maltese Falcon (1941) is a movie of firsts. Acknowledged as the first major film of the classic noir era, it also marks the directorial debut of John Huston, who also wrote the script. In addition, this is Humphrey Bogart’s break-through role, starring alongside Sydney Greenstreet, who is making his film debut. You may recognize Greenstreet as Rick’s friendly business rival in Casablanca, which premiered the next year. Mary Astor, perched on a stack of lies, strives to be the femme fatale so prevalent in film noir, but can’t match the street-wise private eye, Sam Spade, created by novelist Dashiell Hammett. Peter Lorre, in a memorable role, joins Greenstreet and Astor in the search of the jeweled bird. Bogart’s Spade dodges lies, bullets, the treacherous trio, and the police as he unravels the mystery of the famous prize. Grand, enjoyable–it’s one of the great mysteries of all time.

Double Indemnity (1944), the most influential of the early noirs, faced great difficulty in getting made. The studios balked at the raw material and a number of leading men rejected the starring role. Eventually director Billy Wilder and producer Joseph Sistrom convinced Paramount to back the movie. Movie goers flocked to the film and it earned seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Barbara Stanwyck recognized a juicy role and signed on immediately, earning an Oscar nod, as the ultimate femme fatale, Phyllis Dietrichson (a tribute to Marlene Dietrich). Known primarily for comedies and genial roles, Fred MacMurray stars as the perfect dupe, a smooth-talking loner who is ensnared in Stanwyck’s scheme to kill her husband. Thus, the ordinary insurance salesman transforms into the lecherous murderer. Edward G. Robinson plays MacMurray’s boss, who sniffs out foul play. The murderous duo turn on each other and their affair ends in a gun battle, but not before MacMurray confesses the whole plot into his office dictaphone. It’s one of Hollywood’s great scripts, written by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder from the James M. Cain novel. Behold this riveting tale of seduction, murder, and a good man gone wrong who seeks redemption. Enjoy this work of film history.

In 1950, director Billy Wilder gave us Sunset Boulevard, which features several techniques typical to noir–the flashback, the voice-over, the doomed dupe, creepy lighting, the femme fatale, and a heavy dose of madness. Out of desperation, a failing screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) takes a job trying to make sense out of the story written by former silent movie star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a demented megalomaniac who frantically tries to revive her youthfulness. Joe becomes so ensnared in her life–the wealth, her yearnings, and the eerie mansion–he fails to free himself except to co-write another story with the young and wholesome Nancy Olsen. Norma’s jealousy proves disastrous for Joe. The story breaks and Norma’s isolation ends in a murder scandal as she readies for her close-up in a horrible spectacle of glamour gone mad, warped in the frenzy of media exploitation. Nominated for seven Oscars, including four acting nods, as well as Best Picture, and Best Director; it won Best Screenplay and Best Art Direction. Don’t miss this American classic–an unforgettable, ominous tale of the dark side of Hollywood–thoroughly sick and absolutely riveting. It’s ironic that this satire on the entertainment business turns out to be so entertaining. Catch the 2012 Blu-ray edition.

Once upon a time, someone devised the word “chemistry” to describe a special interaction between actors that was evident to anyone watching a film. I discussed Hepburn and Tracy in Movies, but other examples exist, and they don’t necessarily rely upon romantic impulses. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had great chemistry; likewise Paul Newman and Robert Redford “clicked” in the Sting. Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lector had it. But the best example, and the standard all dramatic romances try to better, is that of Bogie and Bacall. They starred together in four memorable films, all within the noir genre.

The Big Sleep (1946). This ranks as one of my all-time favorites, of any genre. Trust me, it holds up well after repeat viewings. As with any great movie, all the elements fuse together well. And it does help a film to be loaded with talent. To start, the story is derived from a 1939 Raymond Chandler novel, adapted for the screen by William Faulkner (yes, that William Faulkner, the great American novelist) along with the excellent Howard Hawks, also the director. Is the story confusing? Oh, yeah. Do I care? Oh, no. It just makes it all the more compelling. When Raymond Chandler was asked to explain all the surprises, double crosses, and twists in this tale of Los Angeles corruption, the author said: “I have no idea.”  This isn’t a mystery you’re meant to solve, it’s a story you’re meant to relish. It’s like a Dickens novel–who cares where it goes, just enjoy the journey. If Raymond Chandler doesn’t know who killed the chauffeur, you’re never going to know. Instead, just watch Humphrey Bogart weave his way through a mire of seedy characters committing dastardly deeds. Murder, blackmail, gambling, hit men, betrayal–it’s all here.

Yet there’s more to this movie than a compelling story–and it’s called sizzle. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall create something special despite the fact that their characters often clash in the course of the story as Bogie’s Philip Marlowe attempts to unravel the mystery while Bacall tries to protect family secrets. The script crackles with intensity, intrigue, flirtation, and even humor, a rarity in noir. A particular conversation regarding race horses oozes innuendo, yet the censors allowed it. In modern movies most anything is said and done, but films operating under the strict standards of the code required cleverness, subtlety, and a director’s deft touch to communicate all that was intended.

How did the director know the repartee between Bogie and Bacall would work? It was proven in To Have and Have Not, a movie Howard Hawks directed with B & B in 1946. Perhaps less of a traditional noir story than the preceding films, it doesn’t focus on crime, but on the reach of World War II into the Caribbean. Still, it features shady characters, corrupt police, plenty of whiskey and cigarettes, chiaroscuro lighting (that’s the fancy Italian word for moody, dramatic lighting in films), death, murder, and a strong sexual undercurrent. Hawks discovered the young Lauren Bacall (Betty Perske) and cast her to play the world-weary heroine, despite the fact that she was only 19 years old, but already gifted with “the look” and a wry, seductive smile. (Bacall developed “the look” by accident–she discovered that if she dropped her head and raised her eyes she could hide the nervousness that made her shake during her early scenes.) Even in her film debut, Bacall could match Bogie’s teasing with barbs of her own. Initially a femme fatale, she becomes the siren who works together with Bogie as his partner in danger. They succeed as adventuresome patriots, with Walter Brennen along for laughs. The movie only generally follows the Ernest Hemingway novel, adapted by Jules Furthman and William Faulkner; instead, Hawks plays down the politics and revs up the sizzle and danger.

Another Bogie and Bacall noir movie, Key Largo (1948), benefited from To Have and Have Not. When director John Huston needed an ending for the thriller in Florida, Howard Hawks suggested the ending of Hemingway’s novel, To Have and Have Not, which became an exciting gun battle on a boat between Bogart and gangster Edward G. Robinson and his flunkies in Key Largo. Another noir film set outside the traditional city milieu, the story is replete with criminals, as well as an alcoholic moll, Claire Trevor, who won an Oscar for her performance, and veteran actor Lionel Barrymore. Yet here, Bogie isn’t a tough guy, he’s an ordinary ex-soldier visiting the father of his deceased comrade-in-arms, who lives on the Florida Keys. He also meets the widow, played by Bacall. The relationship between the three is respectful and sentimental, until the presence of the gangsters twist the story and ramp up the tension.

Now captive by the gangsters and an approaching hurricane, the suspense (and deaths) mount. Bogie backs away from a deadly confrontation with the gangsters, diminishing our confidence and that of Bacall’s in the former soldier and assumed hero. He’s the passive hero who talks his way out of and into trouble. Instead of the tough guy shamus, he’s the decent man we root for. He shows kindness to the moll, who is grateful and later helpful when Bogie does risk his life. Relish this sweaty, tense confrontation with nature, deadly criminals, and helplessness. Good white-knuckle adventure compliment the tentative, budding romance, as well as the claustrophobic suspense. Enjoy a story full of great performances and fine thrills.

The least known of the four Bogie and Bacall movies is Dark Passage from 1947. Here, Bogart is wrongly framed for murder, but escapes from prison. In a cinematic twist, the story is seen from the perspective of the escapee, that is, until he gets plastic surgery to change his appearance. Bacall, a stranger whose own father was wrongly convicted of murder, helps Bogart as he recuperates from surgery. Tension mounts as Bogart dodges the police, his venomous accuser (the excellent Agnes Moorhead), and a blackmailer. As with noir movies in general, the evil doer gets her punishment and the good man gets redemption, or at least escape. Compelling from the first frame to the last, don’t miss this B & B gem.

Lauren “Betty” Bacall was one of the great stars of the golden age of Hollywood; unfortunately we lost her in 2014. She was awarded an Honorary Oscar in 2009. And yes, the chemistry was genuine between B & B–they married six months after completing The Big Sleep. They had two children together and remained together until Bogart’s death from cancer in 1957. Bogart made 75 films in his short life of 58 years. He won his only Oscar in The African Queen (1951), an adventure tale he filmed opposite Katharine Hepburn with director John Huston. I describe this film in my Movies post.

Several Hitchcock films fit within the noir genre, particularly Notorious from 1946. Even Psycho has the feel of a noir movie until it moves beyond suspenseful to horrific. Many movies were made in the noir category, first in America, then quickly thereafter in Europe and Asia. I’ve limited my entries, as I have throughout the two movie posts, to films I’ve seen. The noir’s popularity and the influence on film-makers has carried the thriller sub-category into the succeeding decades in what is commonly called Neo-noir.

The most lauded of the neo-noirs is Chinatown (1974). Set in 1930s Los Angeles, the film centers on private eye Jake Gittes, a flawed man played to perfection by Jack Nicholson. The story’s femme fatale is supplied by the cool, classy Faye Dunaway. The story and the people in this disturbing, enthralling mystery get more complicated as it progresses. Screenwriter Robert Towne won an Oscar for the script, which director Roman Polanski uses to unleash scandals, murders, greed, cynicism, and the story’s shocking revelation. Here noir (“black” in French) is presented in color–all the better to see Nicholson’s bleeding nose. Another departure from classic noirs involves the failure of the decent man to reel in the bad guys. Still, the abundance of treachery, corruption, and complications places this sophisticated crime-drama among the best of noir. By the way, look for the weasel tough guy who slits Nicholson’s nose–it’s Polanski, and the bad guy played by John Huston–one of noir’s directing pioneers.

Other neo-noirs include: Taxi Driver (1976) with Robert De Niro and some kid named Jodie Foster; Fargo (1996); Pulp Fiction (1994); Out of Sight (1998); Insomnia (2002); Road to Perdition (2002); Collateral (2004); A History of Violence (2005); Batman Begins (2005); and The Dark Knight (2008).

 

War movies:

Saving Private Ryan (1998). Every year I faithfully watch the Oscars. But voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences really screwed up when they selected a movie other than this masterpiece as Best Picture for 1998.  Now, I am a big fan of Shakespeare in Love, but it certainly was not the best film of the year. The Academy has taken steps since then to curtain the fervent campaigning that took place that year. Anyway, Steven Spielberg won for Best Director, Janusz Kaminski won for Best Cinematography (a feat the duo first achieved in Schindler’s List); sound, editing, and special effects also scored wins. Along with its five wins, the film was nominated for a total of ten Oscars. Few films top that. It was also the highest grossing movie of the year.

So why is this film so good? I still feel the ultimate trait of a good movie (or book) depends on whether or not it has impact. Those 24 minutes depicting the D-Day invasion of Normandy was a cinematic bludgeoning. Once I recovered my dropped jaw from my lap, I cried, as did most of the rest of the theatre audience. Come to think of it, Spielberg does a great job of eliciting emotions from us—I think of Schindler’s List or how I choked up when E.T. said good-bye to Elliot; and he milked our emotions in A.I: Artificial Intelligence, The Color Purple, Amistad, and others, and I’m sure he’ll get me worked up when I see his latest film, War Horse. (I nearly cried in pain as I watched Ishtar, but that’s a different sort of anguish.) Truly, SPR grabs your heart in a choke-hold and never lets go.

The story centers on a group of Army Rangers sent behind enemy lines to retrieve a soldier whose three brothers have been killed in combat during World War II. The tale is bookended by the graphic portrayal of the D-Day landing in Normandy and the fictional battle at a French village. The Oscar-nominated screenplay by Robert Rodat was inspired by the story of Sgt. Frederick Niland who was sent home after it was thought his other brothers had been killed during WWII. Though the two major battles take up nearly an hour of this epic, the “lulls” in the movie, the conversation among the group, proves to be as compelling as the action. Despite an excellent script, some of the dialogue was even improvised, particularly the “complaint” conversation as the men start their unusual mission and Matt Damon’s (Private Ryan) anecdote just before the final battle about his brother in the barn with the ugly girl. Spielberg just does everything right—from the way he places you right in the middle of all the horror of the battles to his attention to battlefield detail to his sensitivity to human nature. He convinces us all that wounded tough men do cry out for their mothers in their moments of terror. And he makes us believe we are witnessing a believable account of the hell of war. Tom Hanks said of the filming: “We were all scared and we knew it was fake.”

The most important character in the film isn’t Private Ryan, it’s Captain Miller played by Tom Hanks. A man of mystery, he’s the driving force on the mission, and most significantly, the moral center (most of the time) for his men. He represents the struggle to find decency amidst the frightening chaos of war. Spielberg cast Matt Damon as Private Ryan because he wanted an unknown actor with All-American looks. (I recall Damon from Mystic Pizza and Courage Under Fire.) However, Spielberg couldn’t have known that Damon would become famous for his role in Good Will Hunting and win an Oscar for co-writing its screenplay prior to the release of SPR. The other characters of the company give it a New York feel, especially Vin Diesel and Edward Burns. The core of the cast underwent a brutal week of boot camp training to prepare them for the rigors of filming and to provide a sense of the hardships and camaraderie of a company of soldiers. However, Damon was purposefully excluded to develop resentment against him from the others.

D-Day stands as the largest man-made invasion in history (and possibly the world’s most successful military foul-up). Due to modernization of the beach at Normandy and filming restrictions, Omaha Beach was recreated on Curracloe Beach in Ireland, using 2,500 Irish Army and Navy reserve troops as extras. Over the course of a month, the battle was shot in chronological order, moving the filming and the battle from the water up the beach, day by day, one camera shot at a time. The final battle at Ramelle, a fictional battle and town, was filmed at an abandoned airfield near Hatfield, England. The town was built and a canal (a stand-in for the Merderet River) was created to stage the story’s violent, painful conclusion. And remember that opening flash-forward scene at the beginning of the movie? That wasn’t some studio back lot—that was filmed at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial near Colleville-sur-Mer, France, and those markers were for real, and the names of the fallen were for real. It was meant to be as subtle as cannon fire.

Truly, this movie clobbers you over the head. Spielberg effectively taps into human strengths, weaknesses, and quirks. But an important feature of this and really any Spielberg film is in its attention to detail. Just check the credits—eleventy thousand consultants, costumers, art directors, weapons specialists, key grips, carpenters, caterers, accountants, assistants to assistants, and stunt performers were required to make this film. Spielberg does his homework, or at least hires people who do. For instance, all the amputated soldiers you see are real amputees (with the exception of Bryan Cranston). All the gunfire sound effects are recordings of ammunition fired from genuine period weapons. Yes, the forms representing the German machine gunners on fire are real stunt people set ablaze. I’m guessing they don’t pay those people enough. The weapons used in the film are either authentic WWII weapons, or accurate replicas (over 2000 were used). They even used two of the original salvaged landing craft from the actual D-Day invasion. The explosions were real—careful rehearsals were needed to assure authenticity and to make sure the actors weren’t blown to smithereens. Forty barrels of fake blood were used during the opening battle scene. Janusz Kaminski used special lenses and reduced the color by sixty percent to make the film look like the grainy 1940s newsreel footage prevalent at the time of the war. The goal of all this realism was to make you feel like you were there—right on the beach, in that church, in those fields, and in the path of that tank.

So, is this the greatest war movie ever made? Mr. Spielberg said he made the film so that the world would never forget the tremendous sacrifices made by so many to preserve our freedoms. If it isn’t the best war movie, then it’s certainly the most graphic, the most heart-wrenching, and the most realistic war movie ever created. Perhaps that answers the question.

Incidentally, when I was researching this movie, I read an online review that labeled SPR as a man’s movie. That made me angry. Why is this a man’s movie? Are Schindler’s List and The Pianist movies only for Jewish people? These are movies for all people. Though SPR centered on the American invasion at Omaha beach, The Allied invasion of Normandy involved ground, air, and naval forces involving British, American, Canadian, Australian, and Free French forces. Is this a movie only for those countries? This was a massive, tragic, yet successful chapter in human history. The theatre audience for this movie consisted of women and men equally. Yeah, I’m annoyed not only because it’s a sexist remark, but also because I write war stories. The novel One of Ours from 1923 tells the story of a young man from the Midwest who goes to fight in World War I. It received the Pulitzer award–for a woman, Willa Cather. Okay, I feel better. So onward.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). This is the sweatiest movie ever made. The story, set in Thailand, was filmed mostly in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), so the perspiration was real, not a make-up prop (unlike those fake winter scenes where the actors are sweating because it’s their eleventh take as they stand on soap flakes). They even shaved the hairy chest of star William Holden for maximum sweat-effect (don’t take my word for it—watch Sunset Boulevard to see what he really looks like shirtless). The sweat is so real you can almost smell these men. So what’s the point? A David Lean masterpiece will make you feel like you’re right there, suffering the horrendous conditions of this World War II prison camp along with Allied soldiers; it will also jolt you into a remembrance for the thousands of soldiers forced into the terrible conditions of labor camps during the war.

The story involves a group of British soldiers held captive in a Japanese labor camp. When the British Colonel Nicholson (played to perfection by Alec Guinness) demands decent treatment of his men and himself, he is punished by placement in a sweat box (“the oven”) without food or water, but he refuses to break. When the camp commander allows the Colonel to return to his men, the Colonel organizes them and oversees completion of a top-notch railroad bridge to prove British capability and to improve the morale of the imprisoned soldiers. Meanwhile, a team of Americans (and a Canadian), led by William Holden, a former escapee of the camp, seek  to destroy the bridge, which is of great value to the Japanese. The story drips irony: not only does British pride result in potential benefit to the enemy by the building of a sound bridge, American allies are forced to try and destroy the work of British allies, who have unwittingly become collaborators for the Japanese.

The film from the book by Pierre Boulle, is a fictional account based on the construction of the Burma Railway in 1942-43. At the core, it is a battle between three men: the stiff, proud British Colonel (an Oscar win for Alec Guinness, known to many as Obi Wan Kenobi of Star Wars fame), the cynical Yank played by William Holden (who fought so hard to escape the camp only to be forced to return), and the Japanese camp commander (an Oscar nomination for Sessue Hayakawa), who is caught in the line of fire, so to speak, of the competing Allied armies. You’ll recognize the famous “Colonel Bogey March,” whistled by the British POWs as they enter the camp. The film won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director for David Lean, and Best Adapted Screenplay by Michael Wilson, Carl Foreman (both of whom were blacklisted at the time of the award), and Pierre Boulle. An epic thriller, this great film shouldn’t be missed.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). This powerful anti-war classic proves that modern technology isn’t required to portray stunning battle scenes. Note that this war gem was made only three years after the first full-length “talkie” forever changed the art of film-making. Yet the film proves remarkable in other ways: first, we find a tragic depiction of the Great War through the eyes of a schoolboy turned disillusioned German soldier (Lew Ayres at 21 years); and second, the eerie foreshadowing of the fanatical German nationalism and militarism which preceded World War I that would resurface with frightening virulence, transforming Germany in the years after this film was made, and then exploding upon Europe in the form of World War II. Directed by war veteran Lewis Milestone, this was only the third film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. Restored in 1998, it may be the oldest film, and certainly one of the best war movies you’ll ever see.

Gallipoli (1981). This powerful story also features tragedy and humanity during the Great War, but from the Australian perspective. Under the direction of Peter Weir (I’ll be writing about him again) first enjoy the paths two charming young men, Mel Gibson and Mark Lee, take to military service, and then watch scores of promising young men die under despicable military leadership in the debacle of the Dardanelles. Despite the scope of a world war, director Weir distinguishes himself by finding both humane and frightening images in the more intimate moments shared by the two friends and the other Aussies as they travel across the world in the service of the British Empire. In the harrowing moments of disaster, the men discover comradeship and courage. The audience will be reminded of the waste and folly of war (and of the charisma of a young Mel Gibson).

It’s ironic that Americans have never done a better job of killing than when we were killing ourselves. During the American Civil War, which spanned from 1861 to 1865, 750,000 Americans died—a total higher than all other U.S. wars combined. Just to put the casualties in perspective, 23,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died in the 1862 battle at Antietam, in one day. That’s an incredible number of fathers, sons, and husbands to lose in one horrific battle.

The most famous Civil War movie is Gone with the Wind, which I reviewed in my first Movies entry. One of the most important Civil War movies is Glory from 1989. It’s the compelling story of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts, the first all-black regiment to fight in the Civil War. Matthew Broderick plays the idealistic, young (23 years) Colonel Robert Gould Shaw; Morgan Freeman plays the sergeant who rallies the men; and Denzel Washington, an Oscar winner in his supporting role, plays the smart-ass runaway slave who eventually embraces the brotherhood of the regiment. This was the first time I’d ever seen Freeman or Washington, and it was their performances that really stuck with me (as did the flu I had at the time). It was this regiment that convinced Congress to authorize the use of black troops in battle. Over 180,000 black men volunteered to fight as a result. President Lincoln stated the use of black troops helped turn the tide of the war in favor of the North.

Come to think of it, why do we pronounce Colonel like “kernel”? No wonder people find English so difficult to learn–it makes no sense. Just when you think you’ve got the hang of it, you encounter a word like colonel. And what’s with the Old English words with -gh? “Though” isn’t pronounced like “laugh.” In fact, gh words have potentially eight different forms of pronunciation. What’s with that? So to my foreign readers, and I have many, I appreciate your efforts to read my articles and to communicate with me. Onward.

If you’re looking for battle-heavy Civil War movie, Gettysburg (1993) is for you. A fine Civil War movie by the late, great Anthony Minghella is Cold Mountain (2003). It strikes a nice balance between the battlefield, the home front, and the deserter’s long road home. It features Nicole Kidman, Jude Law, Donald Sutherland, Kathy Baker, Eileen Atkins, Brendan Gleeson (Mad-Eye Moody in Harry Potter movies) and an Oscar win for Renee Zellweger. The story derives from the award-winning novel by Charles Frazier, a modern homage to Homer’s The Odyssey.

Stepping aside from the heavy focus that the Civil War, World Wars I and II have received, let’s look at some fine movies from other wars. Yes, you need to be in the mood to watch it, but Hotel Rwanda (2004) provides plenty of hold-your-breath moments and the anguish that goes along with a true story. Yet, it’s uplifting too. Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of a fancy hotel in Kigali, is a modern Oskar Schindler, but with morals. He finds a way to save the lives of 1268 people during the 1994 Rwandan conflict. Amazingly, we feel all the tragedy and shudder at the horrific genocidal slaughter, but actually see only select moments of the war in a movie rated PG-13. Director Terry George makes you think you’ve seen more than you have. We see and experience the horror through the eyes of Paul R. (Don Cheadle, in the role of a lifetime). He succeeds in saving the lives of so many people through courage, intelligence, and ingenuity, in a war that left over one million dead. A finely crafted story, it garnered Oscar nominations for Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo, as well as a nod for Best Original Screenplay for Keir Pearson and Terry George. If you haven’t seen this film, muster some courage and do so.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) is a film I relish every time I watch it. Based upon the novels by Patrick O’Brien, it follows the crew of a British frigate sent to capture or destroy the jewel of the French Navy during the Napoleonic Wars in an epic seafaring adventure. The battleships attack, counterattack, trick and trap, and endure ferocious storms, deadly icebergs, sweltering heat, vicious superstitions, and mutinous rumblings as they travel the South Seas, around Cape Horn, and to the Galapagos Islands. Director Peter Weir makes you feel like you’ve been transported aboard the HMS Surprise, a microcosm of Britain, with a crew of nearly 200 men of various nationalities—a captain, a surgeon and his assistant, officers, sailing experts, cooks, carpenters, seamen (they do a lot of swabbing), and guy called a Loblolly Boy. It’s also the story of two men, Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and physician and naturalist Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), whose friendship is tested by hardship and conflicting personalities.

Nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, it won only two, which isn’t surprising as this was the year Lord of the Rings: Return of the King won nearly every award possible, even without a Loblolly Boy of their own. I strongly suggest the use of subtitles to catch the unique language that flavored that life, that world. An enjoyable blend of great characters, drama, and adventure on the high seas, it shouldn’t be missed.

I remember getting annoyed that Braveheart won the Best Picture Academy Award for 1995 when I was rooting for Sense and Sensibility to win. It’s an example of how difficult it can be to compare movies from two very different genres. Still, this thrilling, gory epic from Best Director winner Mel Gibson is three hours of compelling drama, combat, and romance. It tells the story of William Wallace’s attempt to free Scotland from British rule in the 14th century. All historical films take liberty with the facts, but Wallace was truly roused to act and lead when the British killed his love. (Anyway, I was consoled by Emma Thompson’s Best Adapted Screenplay win for Sense and Sensibility. Adapting a Jane Austen book is a battle in itself as characters speak in paragraphs in her books.) Another gory battle film featuring Mel Gibson is The Patriot (2000). Though it can’t match the quality of Braveheart, it’s a worthy war flick set during the American Revolutionary War. It’s also an opportunity to see a young, dashing Heath Ledger in one of his early roles. A far better Revolutionary War film is John Adams, a 2008 HBO miniseries obviously about John Adams, the second president of the U.S., who helped lead the colonies to cast off British rule and build their own democracy. However, it’s not really a war film, though it does show some battle scenes. It’s actually an excellent drama featuring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, which is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by David McCullough.

Perhaps it’s reality overload, but movies about wars still in process don’t do well. Even Casablanca, which was made during World War II, wasn’t a box office success at the time of its release. Films regarding the war in Iraq have fared even worse, though it certainly does not reflect the quality of the movies. The Hurt Locker (2008), like Casablanca, is a movie made during a war that also won an Academy Award for Best Picture. It follows an elite U.S. Army bomb squad unit whose mission involves diffusing bombs amidst the heat of combat. Their duties become even more perilous when a daredevil (Jeremy Renner in an Oscar-nominated role) takes control of the unit. This movie avoids any reference to politics; instead, it focuses on the specific, hazardous duties of these men. This movie is can’t-look-away compelling. I felt emotionally drained once it was over. I’ve only seen it once, but four years later the story still sticks with me. The film also gained renown as the first American movie to score a win for Best Director for a woman, Kathryn Bigelow. By the way, the term “hurt locker” is soldier lingo for putting someone in a physical world of pain, particularly in reference to the damage caused by explosions. It’s the corporeal version of Saving Private Ryan’s “FUBAR.” The only other Iraq war movie that I’ve seen is The Messenger from 2009. It’s the story of two soldiers whose job involves informing kin of the death of their loved ones. It features Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson (who received an Oscar nod) and the excellent Samantha Morton. Like The Hurt Locker, it side-steps politics and focuses on people, heartache, and the relationship between civilians and the military.

Now, I research films before I view them, so I don’t see many stinkers. But I made a mistake with a war movie, The Miracle of St. Anna (2008). I generally like Spike Lee movies, but this failed at what The Messenger and any good movie excels at–characterization. It’s the story of four African American soldiers who find themselves trapped behind enemy lines in an Italian village during World War II. Sounds good, right? Oh, it was painful. I’m sure both the dumb soldier and the crude soldier eventually experienced an improvement in their characters (or they died). I’ll never know. We couldn’t make it past the halfway point in the movie (both my husband and my adult daughter detested it). Even the Italian boy they rescue turns out to be a freak. If you want people to like your story, you better give them characters they root for, or at least tolerate despite their flaws. We don’t want to to be bludgeoned by stereotypes. I tend to love the movies Clint Eastwood directs, but we turned off Flags of Our Fathers (2006) after about an hour. Think about some of the great movies–The Godfather, Casablanca, Gone with the Wind–they give us compelling not revolting characters. The Lord of the Rings gives us a slew of characters to care about, none of them perfect, but many of them intriguing, amusing, likable, or sinister–but always interesting.

Up till now, I’ve not criticized any movies. But a bad war movie is almost unforgiveable. The most recent stinker is Pearl Harbor (2001). Why did this high-budget war movie cause so much ire? Two major reasons jump out: one, it contains silliness; and two, it’s historically inaccurate. The latter fails to break new ground, and we could have tolerated fudged facts, if not for the cheesy romance—a love triangle, no less. On that day, December 7, 1941, 2400 people died; the United States entered the war. Comedy has its place, but this was not it. I’ve rewritten this story in my head numerous times. Yes, it’s fine to introduce characters, soldiers and nurses, so that we care if they live or die, but I would have shrunk that part of the story to a fraction of what the movie gives us. We’re told one of the main (fictional) characters has a father who served in the first World War, so I would have started and ended the movie with flag-draped coffins.

Anyway, if you want good portrayal of army life on the Hawaiian island before the bombing, then watch From Here to Eternity (1953), a true film classic. Nominated for 13 Academy Awards, and a winner of eight, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, this story meshes together the lives of a group of troubled souls. Instead of silliness, you have a powerful film of passion and tragedy, and what Hollywood calls “major thematic elements.” Yet it is the storytelling and the great performances by Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Montgomery Clift, Donna Reed, and Frank Sinatra (the latter two won Oscars for supporting roles) that create a memorable film. Indeed, the attack does come, but it’s that roll in the surf that sticks in your mind.

The English Patient (1996). When I watched this stirring, complicated epic, I kept wondering—who is that actress and where has she been hiding? It turns out Juliette Binoche has been giving great performances for years—in France. I thought it was one of the best, most effortless performances I’ve ever seen on the silver screen. She even beat out Lauren Bacall for Best Supporting Actress (Bacall received a much-deserved honorary Oscar in 2009). This film is also as close to a classic David Lean epic as you’ll see in our present era of sequels and comic book heroes. Director and screenwriter Anthony Minghella delivers a romantic, tragic, remarkable film set before and during World War II. It’s too late at night for me to even attempt to describe the plot, but know that it features Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Willem Dafoe, Naveen Andrews, and Colin Firth. The film won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Minghella, whom we lost at age 54 in 2008. This captivating film is a personal favorite.

An honor roll of other war films would include Apocalypse Now (1979), a loose take on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, featuring a great cast including Marlon Brando in the way you never wanted to see him; The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), a wonderful story of three men adapting to life after the war; Patton (1970), an excellent biopic starring George C. Scott in a role he seemed born to play; M*A*S*H (1970), the black comedy about a Korean War medical corps by director Robert Altman; two compelling POW flicks, The Great Escape (1963) and Stalag 17, William Holden’s Oscar win; and The Three Kings (1999), with George Clooney, it’s part war, part heist thriller, and part antiwar film about the Persian Gulf War.

Multi-works and movies in a series:

Here’s my disclaimer–many of these “movies” are actually British televison productions. However, I consider them movies since we viewed them on DVDs like movies. And it’s my blog, so I can call them whatever I want. You have been warned.

Charles Dickens movies: If you’ve read my Favorite Books post, you know that I’m a huge Dickens fan, which makes me critical of some of the adaptations. And yes, the book is always better, especially if a story is condensed, which often strips it of its Dickensian charm or bite or both.

Perhaps the best adaptation is Bleak House, the 2005 BBC production. And it’s important to note the particular version, for some attempts languish, while others soar. This movie/ TV miniseries features a script by Andrew Davies, and if you like British period pieces, such as the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice, then you’ll want to remember his name. In this story, Dickens provides an amazing array of characters, interweaving their stories, in a compelling 8-hour movie. Yes, 8 hours—of thrills, murder, comedy, tragedy, love, hate, kindness, and mystery. But with Dickens, it is always about the journey and the characters you meet along the way.

If you don’t know Dickens then you should know he’ll kill off anybody at anytime—including endearing children. He’ll write a subplot about love, but never sink into sentimentality. This novel was written by the author during his middle years when he was at his height in storytelling, especially involving multiple plots with tons of characters (some characters from the novel get dropped even in this lengthy story). This is one of my favorite books—even at 1000 pages, it’s gripping from start to finish. My advice is to read the book then watch this masterpiece. It features Gillian Anderson, Carey Mulligan, Alun Armstrong, Charles Dance, and a slew of great British actors. Great stuff.

My favorite Dickens novel, actually my favorite novel of all, is David Copperfield. So, I was reluctant to watch any version, and there have been several. This novel, like Bleak House, was written in his middle years of authorship, and also features a passel of characters. My major complaint is that the 1999 BBC version I watched squishes 850 pages into a 3 hour movie. I’ve read the book seven times so when I watch the movie and can tell when a scene has reduced fifty pages into five minutes of screen time. It nearly makes my teeth grind.

But for most people, you will find this to be a good story of David Copperfield’s life. The story is so strong, it survives the condensation. This was Dicken’s favorite book. It contains a great deal of quasi-autobiographical character and plot points. It’s also loaded with a great cast—the inimitable Maggie Smith, Bob Hoskins, Ian McKellen (chewing scenery and pound caked), Alun Armstrong, Zoe Wanamaker, and Imelda Staunton. Little David is played by Daniel Radcliffe in the role that helped him earn his Harry Potter role. (I think his acting is better here than in the first two HP movies.) Perhaps, some year a more complete version of this story will be made, and preferably written by Andrew Davies. Until then, enjoy a wonderful story. Or better yet, just read the book.

A more recent Charles Dickens adaptation by the BBC is Little Dorrit (2007). Considered to be the weakest of Dickens later novels, it still spins a great yarn. The great novelist E. M. Forster said “there is this wonderful feeling of human depth” in Dicken’s stories. And this story of a family living in a debtors’ prison touches human depth in a number of characters. I think the novel slogs at times, which screenwriter Andrew Davies remedies by tinkering with pace and the earlier introduction of our heroine, Amy “Little” Dorrit, a child born in the famous Marshalsea Debtors Prison. Though the prison no longer exists, the film used part of the existing structure in the movie. Again, this is a story packed with many characters whose lives become or were previously interwoven. Mystery, comedy, tragedy, deceit, love, murder—it’s all here in 7 ½ hours of compelling storytelling. Jules Verne said of Dicken’s stories: “There is everything in Dickens.”

Again, a top-notch cast gives life to this rags to riches story—Matthew Macfadyen, Claire Foy (in her debut role, also seen in the new Upstairs Downstairs), Tom Courtenay (yeah, Strelinkov in Doctor Zhivago), Alun Armstrong (if you’ve been reading carefully, you’ve noticed this is my third mention of this actor in three movies), Judy Parfitt, and Andy Serkis (playing the British caricature of a conniving French scoundrel). Invest the time and enjoy a classic story told very well indeed.

Our Mutual Friend (1998) was Dicken’s final, completed book. (The Mystery of Edwin Drood may be the greatest mystery in literature— Dickens died in 1870 while writing it—so we’ll never know “whodunit.” Many have amused themselves by finishing the ending, perhaps making these writings the first “fanfiction” ever written.) In the mold of Bleak House, it has a thousand characters in a thousand pages (okay, I’m exaggerating a bit) all woven together through one character, and two plots with numerous subplots. Here Dickens gives us a darker, more modern tale centered on the duality of characters. A major character is the River Thames, which provides its own twofold characterization—death and rebirth. In and around the water we meet slacker attorneys, boring rich people (Dickens loved to make fun of the rich), a psychopathic school teacher, people who search the river for the dead, people who search the dust heap for treasure, and the characters we root for the most—the struggling city and country folk hoping and fighting for a better life. Finally, Dickens gives us two young, pretty females with dimension, in leading roles, instead of the saintly, dull beauties usually found in his books.

The wonderful British cast brings the screen adaptation by Sandy Welch to life in this 6 hour, 1998 BBC production. The one downside to this epic tale of murder, love, greed, passion, treachery, desire, and mistaken/hidden identity is the lack of subtitles. So buy it (after you’ve read the book, of course) then watch it five times like my family has and you’ll catch everything you need to. I’m looking forward to my next viewing. This is Dickens at the end, at his best. Enjoy.

Oliver Twist was first adapted to film in 1910. Obviously, this was a silent film for “talkies” didn’t appear till the late 1920s. This book has been done many times and in many countries. Perhaps the best version is David Lean’s production in 1948. By capturing the desolation, anxiety, loneliness, and despair of childhood workhouses, we understand how young Oliver plays into the hands of the evil manipulator, Fagin, played by the great Alec Guinness. Reflecting the postwar era, the workhouse looks like a concentration camp. Then we have Oliver! the 1968 musical that was so upbeat it made me want to pull my hair out. Happy, singing prostitutes! Starving children dancing and singing! Charles Dickens wrote this novel to tell a story, but also to expose and condemn the horrible conditions of workhouses. This musical defiled Dicken’s vision and purpose and made me want to puke. You might conclude that I didn’t like this version.

A good contemporary version of Oliver Twist is the 2005 production helmed by Roman Polanski. This features an excellent version of Fagin played by Ben Kingsley. This is a well-acted, well-done film. It accurately depicts the grittiness and despair intended by Dickens. Its only drawback is the omission of a couple of major subplots. I would have liked to see a version that didn’t try to cram the story into the Hollywood two-hour format. Still, I have yet to see a film version that even comes close to the horror and thrills Dickens portrays in the latter part of the book. The master leaves all filmmakers humbled, for none can match the excitement and terror Dicken’s novel creates. Forget the movies—read the book. (It’s one of his shorter novels.)

Great Expectations. All of Dicken’s novels have been adapted into film numerous times. But I would argue that his works garner the attention of modern international filmmakers more than Shakespeare does. Yet another Great Expectations film is set for a 2013 release. If you insist on seeing this story as a movie, rent the 1946 David Lean version featuring Jean Simmons in her first film role at age 15. Besides from the famous character, the man-hating Miss Havisham, the movie, like the novel, is noted for its creepy, jarring opening scene in the graveyard. This sets the tone for the moodiness for the story—its sense of longing, loneliness, and intense emotion. The film also features Alec Guinness and John Mills.

The Old Curiosity Shop (2007). This BBC production boils down the plot to its basics, yet achieves a solid version of the novel in 93 minutes. The acting is top-notch—Derek Jacobi, Toby Jones, Sophie Vavansseur, and Zoe Wanamaker—give excellent performances in this tale of a girl and her flawed grandfather. I think the movie is even harder on the grandfather character than in the book—either way, his gambling addiction extracts a heavy toll. Don’t look for laughs in this story. David Copperfield was his favorite book; Nell Trent in this story was his favorite character. Her ending plunged Dickens into a funk of grief. Also powerful is our detest of the grandfather and his inability to stop gambling away the family’s assets, to the point that he must flee with Nell to escape the burden of debt and the delightfully evil powers of his loan shark, Daniel Quilp. Look for Martin Freeman, the new Bilbo Baggins in the 2012 version of the Hobbit. (Quick, it doesn’t come out till December 14; you still have time to read the book.)

Nicholas Nickleby (2002). As with any Dickens story (and most books), the movie would run for several hours to fully cover the contents of the novel. This 2002 version (2 hrs. 12mins.), screen-written and directed by Douglas McGrath, presents a fine, likable story of a young man forced to support his family after his father dies. Dickens, never one to give his subject matter the soft touch, gives us brutality, hardship, suicide, and betrayal, as well as romance, kindness, irony, and humor. The excellent acting ensemble includes Jim Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson, in delightfully cruel roles, as a husband and wife running a boys’ boarding school in the north where Nicholas first seeks employment. The conditions of the school are shockingly vicious—young boys are beaten and starved. The publication of the novel outraged the English, which led to investigations and closings of the notorious Yorkshire schools. Dickens often had duel intentions when he wrote his novels—to tell a story and to expose some evil of his world. Daniel Webster said of the author: “Dickens has done more to ameliorate the conditions of the English poor than all the statesmen Great Britain has sent into Parliament.” So, watch this movie or read this book or both, and know the master storyteller was presenting a commentary on society and spinning a great yarn in the process. Enjoy.

The Tale of Two Cities. Yes, I know it’s repetitious to say you should read the book and skip the movie. But if you’re looking for best cinematic version of this classic, I recommend the 1935 version with Ronald Colman, for it retains many of the secondary characters and subplots. It’s the story of an English family embroiled in the French Revolution. There’s a reason this story has endured for over a century and a half. This is Dickens at his best in the latter stage of his writing. You won’t find the humor of David Copperfield or Bleak House or Pickwick Papers—it’s hard to find humor in the tyranny of the French aristocracy or the rebellion and mob mania of starving people. The guillotine is not a comedic prop. Instead, you’ll find compelling story with a thrilling end. Indeed, it’s great, meaty stuff.

A Christmas Carol. So many film and stage versions of this tale exist, it’s hard to keep track of them all. The 1984 version, featuring George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge, reflects the dark tone the 66-page short story suggests. However, even the 1993 Muppet version with Michael Caine, a family favorite, sets a comedic tone, yet hits all the crucial points. At its heart, it’s a story of second chance at life, a journey from death to rebirth for a hard-hearted man. A cautionary tale, it uses ghosts as tools for reformation and not as agents of terror or revenge. It’s Dicken’s biggest selling story. Read it, watch it–enjoy an ageless classic.

 

The Twilight Saga series: The two best things about these movies include: one, they are something to share with my daughter; and two, the soundtracks contain some good songs (they turned me on to Florence + the Machine, the Black Keys, Paramore, and Muse). There’s been a great deal of vitriol aimed at these movies and the novels. Lighten up, people. These are for young girls or romantics, and yes, they can be silly. Nobody claims they’ve made something to rival Casablanca or The Godfather. Don’t worry, there are always plenty of mindless, plotless action flicks due for release.

Harry Potter movies (and books). Loneliness, friendship, fear, joy, abandonment, a sense of belonging, a harsh upbringing, a true home, father figures, mother figures, courage. JK Rowling set out to write a story, a really long one, about a boy. Why not set it in the wizarding world? David Copperfield and the Catcher in the Rye had already been written. The magic the author interleaves into the story involves more than wizardry and witchcraft. Rowling makes us root for and sympathize with her hero so strongly it is nothing short of literary and cinematic magic.

The world Rowling creates is both wildly fantastic and incredibly familiar. Yes, characters do ride on broomsticks, but they also travel on subways. They participate in spectacular wizarding challenges, yet they also celebrate Christmas and receive ugly hats and scarves knit by mother. I’ve heard some people say they saw the first or the first two movies and stopped. Big mistake. The third movie, the Prisoner of Azkaban, marks a dramatic departure from the first two, movies which are good, but a little stiff. Director Alfonso Cuaron delivers a more artistic and much darker film. Rowling changes the tone in her third book to a heavier, more complex story, and the movie reflects it. At this point, it seems as if the movies shed their adolescence and transform into movies as much for adults as for kids.

Although the distinction between good and evil is clear, Harry is a complex character, selfish at times and often willing to break rules to suit his needs. We easily tolerate his flaws and questionable morals because he’s generally right. He’s on a collision course with the most evil force in the wizarding world and they both know one of them must die.

Yet, some condemn the story as evil since it involves magic. And these same people praise Lord of the Rings to the skies. Sauron uses a great deal of evil magic, though he’s not as fun to watch as Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort. Why is it acceptable for Gandalf to use magic, but not Dumbledore? In their respective stories, both Saruman and Bellatrix Lestrange kill many people, yet it is only Saruman who destroys trees, a great sin indeed. Of course, many critics of Harry Potter haven’t actually read the books or seen the movies, yet remain contentedly self-righteous.

Some people probably consider these movies to be just for kids. The latter movies are PG-13 and are not meant for young kids. Dead students, brutal snake attacks, murders, creepy villains, torture, scary images, sinister creatures, frightening dark magic, and the ever-colliding forces of good and evil make this mature sometimes violent storytelling. Harry needs magical abilities to fight against the perils that befall him, yet his most important trait is bravery. For all the fancy spells, it’s the dependability of Ron, wits of Hermione, and loyalty of his friends that aid him the most.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the movies (and books) is the continuity. No movie fails, despite the use of four different directors. The movies are spread over eleven years, yet the young cast—Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, as well as many secondary actors, stay with the movies. And even more surprisingly, high caliber British adult actors stay loyal to the movies. Maggie Smith is there from the start and is awarded in the final film with her rare opportunity to play action hero. The who’s who of British actors grace the movies, such as Alan Rickman, Jim Broadbent, Helena Bonham Carter, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Ralph Fiennes (pronounced “rayf fines,” if you didn’t know), Imelda Staunton, John Hurt, and Mark Williams. The only loss was Richard Harris, who died after the second movie was made. He was replaced by the excellent Michael Gambon. Most Americans are in awe of British actors—we all assume they’ve toured with the Royal Shakespeare Academy for at least 20 years, even the children.

For perspective on the orphan Harry Potter, consider the author. JK (Jo) Rowling lost her mother to disease when she and her sister were teens. She describes her father as distant, so this is a woman tapping into feelings of loss, heartache, abandonment. Like Harry, she is resilient—it took five years to go from an idea to a completed novel, which was followed by a year of rejections before she landed a publisher. (She’s not alone in rejection nightmare tales—it took 242 rejections before an author named Margaret Mitchell found a publisher for a little story called Gone with the Wind.)

JK is also a mother, so you see the theme of a mother’s love time and again. It was Harry’s mother’s love and sacrifice that saved Harry from Voldemort when he was an infant, and she is with him at the end via the Resurrection Stone. An important mother figure is Molly Weasley, played by Julie Walters. She mothers Harry at every opportunity and he truly appreciates her (you see it more in the books). In one of the final scenes, we get to enjoy the duel between Molly and Bellatrix Lestrange—the antithesis of motherhood, a lover of pain and murder. To the delight of the audience, Molly defends her daughter with the amusing threat: “Not my daughter, you bitch!” Molly then kills Bellatrix, Voldemort’s staunchest ally. Ooh, I loved it, especially since one of Molly’s sons was killed in the Battle at Hogwarts by another Death Eater. Another important example of a mother’s love involves the lie Mrs. Malfoy tells when she says Harry is dead. He’s faking it, and she’s more interested in finding her son than in aiding Voldemort. This allows the final duel between Harry and Voldemort.

My family, and millions of others, has enjoyed these movies, at times funny or touching, but always incredibly creative and thrilling. If you’ve skipped these films, do yourself a big favor and watch the world’s most successful movie franchise in history.

Elizabeth Gaskell movies. As an American, I was unfamiliar with Gaskell’s writings. My loss. A protégé of Charles Dickens, this British writer weaves plots and subplots and characters together with great skill.

Cranford (2007). This story interweaves three Gaskell novels into a five-hour mixture of humor, romance, and tragedy. The story follows the lives in this small town in rural central England on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. Though the story focuses on the women of the town, we also visit the world of the ultra rich and the unfortunate poor. Like Dickens, Gaskell seeks to tell a good tale, yet also flush out social commentary, in this case, antiquated medical procedure and the resistance to new ideas and methods, as well as the rigid class system and the illiteracy of the poor the rich think natural in 1842-1843 England. I’ve seen this movie (okay, it’s actually BBC TV) several times and I still laugh at the events and foibles of the characters, only to be stunned into silence by calamity. Like Dickens, Gaskell will kill off anyone at anytime. The cast features the elite of British actors—Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton, Eileen Atkins, Michael Gambon, Jim Carter (currently featured in Downton Abbey), Julia McKenzie, and Lesley Manville.

The story continues in Return to Cranford (2008). This three-hour sequel brings the railroad to Cranford, and along with it, change, new opportunities, trepidation, death, romance, new friendships, and more laughs. Check out an early role for Tom Hiddleston, Loki, the bad guy in Thor and the Avengers. I highly recommend these stories and I look forward to my next viewing.

North and South (2004). When a parson-turned-teacher uproots his family from the idyllic rural southern England to the turmoil of the industrial north, he forces social change on his family for better and worse. This 4-hour BBC adaptation of the Gaskell novel by Sandy Welch pits a headstrong Margaret against one of the mill owners (Richard Armitage of The Hobbit). Like a Mr. Darcy-Elizabeth Bennet story in which discord marks the earliest encounters of the two leads, it still reflects a grittier version of industrial England, one marked by labor-worker adversity, poverty, and class struggles. Unlike an Austen story, people do die, even people we like, which gives this romance an earthier, Dickens feel. Unlike Cranford, humor is scarce, but fine acting and a strong, compelling story make this a winner.

The story presents an interesting parallel to the industrial north and the agrarian south of America during this time period. However, England managed to abolish slavery and avoid a civil war that took 750,000 American lives. Well done, England.

Wives and Daughters (1999). My last Gaskell entry is a 5-hour story adapted from the 1865 novel adapted by Andrew Davies. If you’ve been paying attention, he’s really good. The tale centers around a country doctor and his daughter—and like North and South, we see the problems when male heads of households make rash decisions without carefully considering the consequences and without consulting involved parties. In this case, the good doctor forces an annoying stepmother and a troublesome stepsister on his daughter, a young woman content with having Daddy to herself. More Austen than Dickens, this story emphasizes romance, gossip, and social intrigue; however, Gaskell still kills off two secondary characters (Dickens killed off main characters while Austen didn’t want to kill anyone). This mix of nobility, town, and country folk provides an engrossing British tale with great acting.

 

Agatha Christie movies. My advice to you is read the books! That’s not to say there aren’t good movies of her books, there are many, but to get the true feel for this great mystery writer you must read her. That way you can judge for yourself whether the numerous actors are worthy to play the characters she created.

One of my favorite books and movies—and no, I didn’t figure it out—is Murder on the Orient Express. I first read the book as a teen, then again later in my thirties. Many of her books have been made into movies several times over. My favorite version is the 1974 star-studded classic with Albert Finney. This version is well-written, well-directed by Sidney Lumet, and above all packed with fine performances, sometimes over-the-top, but delightfully so. Other adaptations fail to match the charisma of a cast that includes Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, and Michael York. Ingrid Bergman even won an Oscar for her performance. If you’re new to Christie or to her films, this is a great place to start.

Another enjoyable Christie movie is Death on the Nile (1978). Although Peter Ustinov doesn’t match the description of Hercule Poirot in the novels, this fine actor ably leads an all-star cast through the complexities of the story, with his side-kick played by David Niven. Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, George Kennedy, Angela Lansbury, and Maggie Smith are passengers on a boat traveling the Nile when the murder occurs.

Like most of Christie’s tales, red herrings, multiple mysteries, and even multiple murders abound. If you are new to Christie, remember this—history is always important, particularly regarding motive. Pay close attention to back story. You might even guess the murderer—though it’s much easier in the movies than in the books, which include more characters, more information, and more history. Christie, and by extension, her main sleuths, Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, believe in both the goodness and the evil in people. Unlike Film Noir, the murderer won’t look like a thug in a trench coat with a gun—the murderer may be the village doctor, the mousey wife, the respectable businessman, the glamorous movie star. Though they may not be the killers, she’s a bit of snob when it comes to foreigners—especially Americans, who she depicts as loud and obnoxious (really now, in a country of 700 million, I don’t think we’re all the same, take my word for it, some of us are quiet introverts—I live in a house full of them).

Though I like the aforementioned movies, I think the best series are found on British TV. Many actors have played Miss Marple, the cunning little old lady from the village, and Hercule Poirot, the retired Belgian Police detective, Joan Hickson and David Suchet respectively, seemed to have been born to play these roles. The Hickson Miss Marple stories began in the mid-1980s and continued to the early 1990s. The Suchet Hercule Poirot stories continue today. By my count, there are three or four more Poirot stories to film, not including short stories that could be expanded to feature-length movies. Christie wrote more Poirot than Marple stories, and many of her novels didn’t involve either sleuth. Here are some of my family’s favorites:

Suchet as Poirot: The ABC Murders, Five Little Pigs (Murder in Retrospect), Appointment with Death, the Blue Train, Third Girl, Taken at the Flood, Sad Cypress, The Hollow, and The Clocks.

Hickson as Marple: Nemesis, Pocket Full of Rye, A Murder is Announced, Murder at the Vicarage, 4:50 From Paddington.

 

Copyright Judy Bruce and Hey Joood 2017. Duplication is prohibited.

 

 

 

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